Leigh Kuwanwisiwma speaks about the Colorado River with a tone of tenderness, calling it the lifeblood of the Hopi Tribe.
“It’s an amazing ecosystem down there,” said Kuwanwisiwma, director for the tribe's cultural preservation office. "You would think in the Southwest you wouldn't have this type of environment, but follow these creeks into the arroyos and canyons and boy is it paradise up there.”
It has been several years since environmental groups first floated a proposal to designate 1.7 million acres north and south of the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Since then, the concept has gotten comments from recreators, ranchers, hunters and conservationists, all interested in what the designation could mean for access to and protection of the area’s natural resources.
But the lands also represent a landscape treasured by tribes across northern Arizona. Despite being some of the people most intimate with the land, several tribes said they still have only a vague knowledge of the proposal. The general concept of protecting more of the unique Grand Canyon region has support from most though, according to interviews with tribal officials from the Havasupai, Kaibab Paiute, Hopi and Navajo tribes.
“We think it would be a good thing,” said Roland Maldonado, chairman of the Kaibab Paiute. “Of course that goes along with the whole generally native understanding about stewardship of the land, preserving and protecting and thinking about children seven generations ahead of us and what we are going to leave them.”
The area currently proposed for the monument would cover the tribe’s traditional lands, said Maldonado, who was more familiar with the proposal than others.
The monument’s supporters know tribal support is crucial to the monument’s success.
“There are a lot of land values (the monument is) trying to protect directly related to values (tribes) hold,” said Kim Crumbo of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.
If a monument wasn't a really strong interest of the Havasupai, for example, “it would be really difficult to protect those areas,” he said. The monument’s supporters have been and continue to reach out to tribes to get their input, Crumbo said.
The proposed monument lands include thousands of ancient Native American archaeological sites, some that date back 12,000 years, Crumbo wrote in a report about the project. They would also encompass place like Antelope Spring, House Rock Valley and the lava-capped Red Butte mountain that hold sacred value or other significance for tribes, the report said. Appropriate primitive road closures and reduction of logging, both of which are being considered as part of the monument, would help preserve those values, Crumbo wrote.
Along with general comments of support, tribal members emphasized that any monument designation should incorporate and consider tribes’ historic presence on the land.
“The Hopi, Paiutes, Hualapai and Havasupai, those four tribes are the original stewards of the Grand Canyon and that needs to be articulated,” said Kuwanwisiwma, of the Hopi Tribe. “The legislation should clearly reflect cultural values of those indigenous peoples.”
The tribe just heard about the proposal last week and needed more time to study its specifics, Kuwanwisiwma said, but he indicated the tribe would generally support a measure to protect the watershed that the Hopi hold in high reverence.
Several tribal officials supported the monument proposal’s intent to withdraw the 1.7 million acres from new uranium mining claims.
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The extent of that protection however, stirred concern for Havasupai Tribe Chairman Rex Tilousi.
“We want to protect it somehow but we need to know how,” Tilousi said. “If they turn this into a protected monument will this affect the areas where we as elders go to pray and gather?”
Tilousi said he hadn’t yet spoken with advocates of the monument proposal and said the tribe hadn't decided on its position toward the idea.
Deswood Tome, spokesman for Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly’s administration, said the Navajo Nation currently sees no issues with the watershed project being further developed.
But, he said, the tribe would request meaningful consultation on projects involving land in the region “so that we can live in harmony and side by side with each other.”
After a long history of losing control of their ancestral lands, Maldonado, of the Kaibab Paiute, said the monument proposal would at least give tribes a say in the management of lands they once called their own.
“Those are our traditional lands and we’re no longer in charge of those lands so what we’re left with is learning how the system works and helping enact part of a system that allows us greater voice and allows for greater subtle actions to enact protection,” he said.
Complications of congressional support
The monument idea has been in the works for more than five years, but got nudged into a public spotlight in January when Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego wrote a letter to president Obama requesting he use his authority under the Antiquities Act to create a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument. Soon after came formal opposition to a monument designation from 27 legislators, including Arizona senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, as well as the state’s four Republican representatives.
But some tribal members are only lukewarm about Kirkpatrick’s endorsement. Kuwanwisiwma noted what he saw as a glaring inconsistency in the representative’s support for a Grand Canyon Watershed monument designation after she was a driving force behind a land swap in southeastern Arizona that would allow for copper mining beneath lands sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
Kuwanwisiwma also mentioned Kirkpatrick’s sponsorship of an economic development bill that many criticized for allowing the Navajo Nation to exempt some developments from federal environmental and historic preservation laws. Kuwanwisiwma is one of those who saw the bill as further paving the way for the proposed Escalade project at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.
“On the one hand I think she's doing justice to this fragile (Grand Canyon) ecosystem and yet she’s supporting the Navajo Tribe on developing the confluence project,” Kuwanwisiwma said.
In response, Kirkpatrick spokesman D.B. Mitchell said Kirkpatrick has expressed the intention of the bill “was never to promote a specific project,” but was focused on building basic critical infrastructure.
Kirkpatrick will be in Flagstaff Thursday for a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument stakeholders' meeting.